LATELY, something strange has happened. The army has kept quiet. In the face of fairly meaty provocations from the US.
Post the Glocs-cum-apology deal, the media in the US erupted with chatter about an impending operation in North Waziristan.
Panetta then turbocharged the speculation by talking of options being discussed with the Pakistan Army.
Over here, the response was unusually muted.
The army has long argued that NWA is only doable if there’s a political and social consensus in favour of an operation. But nothing undermines the possibility of a favourable consensus on anything in Pakistan as much as American fingerprints all over a decision.
And yet, other than the Peshawar corps commander downplaying the speculation, there was no visible response, no anger or resentment expressed on the Pakistani side against damaging comments from the American camp.
The reaction to the designation of the Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist organisation has been an even bigger surprise.
The implications are clear. Today, the Haqqanis are a terrorist organisation. Tomorrow, if things go further south between Pakistan and the US, Pakistan could become a state sponsor of terrorism for harbouring the Haqqanis, a reality Pakistan doesn’t really try and hide anymore.
But here’s the amazing part: the army has kept silent.
None of the favourites in the media have been activated to decry the provocative move by the Americans. No unnamed security official has railed against the American military preparing to scapegoat Pakistan for the US military failure in Afghanistan.
The ISPR hasn’t issued a statement talking of concern at high levels in the military. No senior official has spoken of the unwelcome impact on Afghan reconciliation that the US designation will have.
The question is, why?
Behind the scenes, there is speculation the US has signalled its willingness to ramp up reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban and to give Pakistan a larger say in the process.
That, according to this theory, has helped tamp down army criticism of unwelcome chatter by the Americans on the Haqqanis and North Waziristan.
Spoken of in more hushed tones is another theory: Gen K and his inner circle are trying to prevent ties with the US from unravelling further.
As the supply-route closure dragged on, the extent of American anger and disillusionment with Pakistan began to sink in. The CIA is nasty. The military is looking to pass on the blame for the failure in Afghanistan. Congress is unhappy with a duplicitous ally who sucks up funds and spits out venom.
And yet, the army needs the Americans. It needs them to keep the funds flowing. It needs them to exit Afghanistan in an orderly manner. It needs them to help salvage a modicum of stability there. It needs them to keep Pakistan on the right side of international opinion and the world economy.
The Americans are an angry bunch, but they’re an angry bunch Pakistan needs — and Gen K knows this.
Still, if keeping the Americans engaged is necessary, the general is walking a perilous tightrope. For mistrustful and angry as the Americans are and necessary as it may be to keep them engaged, there is another group that is just as angry and mistrustful and who need to be kept on side even more: the hawks in the army here.
The more Gen K tries to smooth things over with the Americans, the more he risks stoking more discontent over what is a very unpopular approach, however necessary the pragmatists know it to be.
There is also the slight problem of American petulance making smoothing things over that much more difficult. Gen K has already been stung very publicly once. The courtship by Mike Mullen had a spectacular denouement: a humiliating dressing down by the admiral at his final testimony before Congress.
Gone was the forced bonhomie, all that was left were the words that still ring in ears here: the Haqqanis are a ‘veritable arm’ of the ISI. The Americans will screw us anyway, why are we setting ourselves up for another fall, the hawks here argue.
To this, and much else, the army high command doesn’t really have an answer. Part of the problem is that the Americans don’t really know what they want. But the other part of the problem is that neither does Pakistan.
Gen K is walking a tightrope, but even in a circus, it starts at point A and ends at point B. Where is the general’s tightrope leading him? Nobody knows.
A balancing act for the sake of balancing can be a good survival strategy — for an individual. For an institution and a country, it doesn’t make much sense.
Say the general is trying to ride out a rough patch, to buy some time until there’s more clarity on the American side. For a novice, that could make sense. For a two-term army chief, not so much.
And this is where the paralysis becomes all the more damning. From November 2010, when a second term sent out the message of indispensability, to now, September 2012, a sceptic could ask: what was the point?
Where is the policy articulation, where is the direction, where is the strategy? Fata is the same, Pakistan proper is a ticking bomb, Afghanistan is in limbo, progress with India is tenuous, the great reorientation towards China and Russia a non-starter, and the Americans have all but been lost.
When you try to take everyone along, you end up losing them all sometimes. Especially if you’re on a tightrope to nowhere. n
The writer is a member of staff.